Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Christians

Lucas Hnath's The Christians, which has recently been extended through mid-October at Playwrights Horizons, is a compelling play about contemporary evangelical Christianity. It asks a number of interesting and complicated questions about religion as a means to unite and to divide, to connect and to alienate, to sustain and to harm. It also touches on the need for religions to grow and change in order to adapt to the contemporary world, and on altogether more earthly matters: building maintenance, membership numbers, mortgages, money. It is not a perfect play, but it is a very good one, which is worth seeing for the questions it raises, its conception and direction, its strong and committed cast, and its totally excellent megachurchy set.

Joan Marcus
At the start of the play, which begins with a few energetic (if seriously underharmonized) numbers by the church choir, Pastor Paul (an appropriately soothing Andrew Garman) delivers a sermon in celebration of his huge church's final mortgage payment. Professing a spiritual crisis that began when he learned of a boy who gave up his own life to save his sister from a burning building, he announces to his congregants that such a boy should not be damned to Hell because he was not a Christian. Even further, he informs them, he no longer believes in the concept of Hell and feels that no one in his congregation should, either.

The pronouncement makes slow, uncomfortable ripples through the enormous congregation, which slowly dwindles in response. The debates that follow Paul's opening sermon--with a church elder; a young, hard-suffering congregant; Associate Pastor Joshua; and Paul's wife, Elizabeth--all raise questions that are, if not easily answered, still worthy of serious consideration: Who does and does not deserve to enter Heaven? If there is no Hell, and everyone is redeemed, what's the point of Christianity at all? How fast is too fast for a religion to adapt to the changing world? How radically can personal belief differ from collective belief? What are the intersections between religion and big business, and is Paul truly responding to the word of God, or is he deluded by power and status into thinking he can control the spritual lives of others?

There are a few things I had trouble with, some of which are, admittedly, the result of cultural difference: I'm Jewish and a lifelong urban East Coast gal, so the churches Hnath bases his on are about as foreign to me as is the Christian concept of Hell. My initial impulse was thus to think that Pastor Paul's sermon would go over without a hitch--or a second thought--in Brooklyn; my later reaction was to wish that I were a little better educated about Christian theology: Has no one before, in the long history of Christianity, pondered the possibility that Hell does not exist? And thus would Paul's congregants react quite so strongly were this a real situation?

More practically, the play, which has been in production across the country and has, I imagine, been through a few revisions in the process, could stand a few more. For the current length--a brisk 90 minutes--some scenes still seem a little overwritten. I would have liked a bit more context, too, and maybe more backstory than was provided. Who are these characters, really? Where are they? Most importantly, who, exactly, is Paul? He has the most to do onstage and he sets the whole plot in motion, but ultimately I felt like I understood his character least. The way that the play was conceived and directed--with all the characters speaking into microphones as if they were in front of a huge congregation, even when they were supposed to be having private, even deeply intimate, conversations with one another--was effective. But are the characters then supposed to be symbolic, and possibly reacting to other, entirely different cultural changes going on of late in houses of worship across the country?

This all being said, I appreciate The Christians for its wholly uncondescending and highly engaging examination of the contemporary evangelical world. The play steers far clear of the kind of religion-bashing that has, at least to me, come to feel cheap, smug, and stale. It treats all sides of a complicated argument with respect and depth. While the whole cast was strong, I was especially appreciative of Larry Powell, whose Associate Pastor Joshua could have easily been the bad guy who turns his back on Pastor Paul's radical new vision for the church because of his own rigidity. But Joshua reappears at the end of the show to discuss his own struggles with the concept of Hell, which are delivered with incredible conviction--and convincing spiritual pain. Hell might be other people, as Sartre said, but it can also be the kind of profound, cosmic isolation that almost all of these characters ultimately confess to experiencing in their search for communion with the almighty in a broken world.

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